Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the heart of it all

Running has been a great gift in my life.   So many wonderful experiences have come to me through it, in many ways and person-by-person.  It’s the thread that ties all of the disparate chapters of my adult life together, something I always come back to.  Plus it challenges me like nothing else.  Do you know what it’s like to keep going when you think you cannot?

This time of year I can’t help but reflect upon January 31st, 1989, the day that showed me just how quickly life can change.   One moment I was a carefree high school junior, driving down a country highway in Central Wisconsin.  Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was blaring from the car radio while Jodi and I talked.  Next, I was waking up in dazed confusion, as if everything were in slow-motion.  Metal upon metal.  A high-speed collision with a semi trailer carrying a full load of lumber logs left me with a broken jaw, fractured femur, and shattered patella.  I was extricated from my ’71 Chevy Chevelle Malibu by the Jaws of Life.  I would later learn that a stainless steel rod had been inserted into the core of my thigh, and that pins and wires were holding my kneecap together.  I was told to never expect to run again, that I’d likely always walk with a limp.

When I awoke from surgery, the first bouquet of balloons I found beside my hospital bed was from my running coach.  Many more balloons, flowers, cards, and stuffed animals streamed into my room, as well as family, friends, and those whom I could have sworn didn’t even like me.   One particular card had a profound effect on me; I still have it, all these years later.  The girls on our rival cross-country team, at a high school just down the street, wrote a story about the bumblebee and how he isn’t supposed to be able to fly, given body mechanics, yet manages to do just that and produce a little honey each day.  A glimmer of hope. 

My 17th birthday arrived two weeks later.  At my request, Mom took me to Michele’s Restaurant and Lounge, where I worked.  They blended up soup to a consistency I could eat (everything went through a straw for six weeks).  Just when ice cream with a candle in it came out, Patty (our waitress) sat down with us.   She proceeded to tell us the story of when she was broadsided by a train while crossing the railroad tracks with her husband and daughter, and how she could feel her teeth in the roof of her mouth, how she had broken her back and sustained many other injuries far, far worse than mine.  I had known Patty for a long time but didn’t realize that what I always thought were dimples were actually tucks from cosmetic surgery.  She told us about how her family had been crying at her bedside, since she looked so different, and how she had told them to stop crying, because she was thrilled to be alive.  She made light of my wired jaw, shared her favorite mashed potato/gravy recipe, and gave me more hope than she’ll ever know. 

Love and support carried me through.  My single mom nearly lost her job at a grocery store because she had to take so much time off of work to care for me: blending up my food, taking me to appointments, helping me with just about everything.  Our excitement turned to disgust when she changed my bandage for the first time in my bedroom at home; together we gazed at the huge, discolored blob that my knee had become.  “We’ll get through this, honey,” she said.  My aunt and grandma stayed when they could.  It is humbling when you cannot even bathe yourself.  These were the days before cell phones, so I did things like bang on a pan with a wooden spoon (since I couldn’t call out in a loud voice with a wired jaw) in the middle of night, to alert my grandma that I needed help getting the immobilizer on my leg and getting to the bathroom.  “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she would say.  And my friend Susanne was amazing.  While our connection up till that time had been running cross-country and track together, she was the one friend who wasn’t afraid to see me when I was in a wheelchair.  She came over often and our friendship deepened beyond running.  Silver linings are very real.

The most pivotal moment came back at the hospital.  I was there for a physical therapy session and Dick (my PT) told me to flex my knee.  I tried, but nothing happened.  Not even a ripple of muscle contraction.  I couldn’t fight back the tears, or sobs.  The magnitude of it hit me; I really thought my knee no longer worked and they just didn’t know how to tell me.  Dick, wearing a very sober expression, said, “I’ll be right back,” and returned wheeling a cart over to the table I was on.  He hooked me up to all these electrodes and told me to try (flexing) again.  A tiny blip registered on his screen.  “See?” he said, “It works.” He explained that indeed the message was getting from my brain to my knee, that everything was intact, “You just have to be patient.” 

Thankfully the body heals fast when one is that age.  All of the hardware came out again that same year (in subsequent surgeries).   I had asked my surgeon if I could see the rod.  When I woke up in Recovery, there it was beside me (it says “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on it because it was removed in mid-December).  My mom gave me this montage, of the pins and wires from my knee, along with the rod, as an 18th birthday present: 

Yeah, that car sure was ugly, but I had been so happy to buy it for $500!

I remember feeling annoyed when people would ask if my knee hurt…"Of course it hurts!” I wanted to yell…but then a day came when it just didn’t.  I don’t even know when that day was; it just happened.  Then more days came wherein I regained full motion of my joint, and others followed in which I became fluid again.  Next I shook the limp, even while running.   Eventually my knee scar faded.  Days turned into years.

Today I love it when I line up at the start of a race and people have no idea that any of this happened.  They may even see me as competitive.  It’s awesome when my mom can make it to a race.  I find her on the sidelines: our eyes meet and we acknowledge an understanding through a smile.  Perhaps others think running is just easy for me, that it comes naturally, or that I have loads of free time.  None of this could be further from the truth! 

I am that person who had to start from scratch in learning how to walk and then run again.  I carry these memories into my stride.  While I don’t know why I was so incredibly fortunate to be given this chance, what I am 100% certain of is what I am going to do with it.


  1. Crying, Sara. Beautiful... No wonder you carry such amazing-ness with you and why it shows so strongly. Love you.

  2. Absolutely beautiful Sara...you've always been an inspiration to me, but after reading your story, there are no words to explain the level at which I see you now. Keep running!

  3. A book's story if seldom its cover. Yours is certainly a good read, Sara. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Sara! I love your writing style and am glad you're sharing it with us via blogging!
    I'm looking forward to hearing more reflections from the trail!

  5. Great post Sara! Very inspiring. My knee actually hurts a little less right now. :)

  6. Nice pin, Sara! How satisfying a benchmark of the repair your body is capable of.
    When I broke my jaw in college and Dad was driving me out to the farm to recuperate, we stopped somewhere in Wisconsin and they blended up soup for me. It was delicious, and they were so nice to us. It was one of the best meals I had for six weeks. I think, between the two of us, that we can safely recommend Wisconsin as the Best Broken Jaw Recovery state ever.

  7. Great start to the blog Sara!

  8. Wow, Sara! Amazing! I do remember that this had happened to you but I had no idea... Thanks for sharing. It is absolutely awesome that you got to where you are now. I'm very proud to have such a strong, wonderful almost-cousin on the other side of the world!
    Look forward to reading more :-)

  9. Sara, I didn't know this part of your story but now I know why you've got the "Marine Corps" heart that I've admired with your running challenges. You inspire me and I'm letting Nancy read your story since she had a similar car accident in nursing school, which she overcame. Brave hearts are hard to find. Jim Hill

  10. What a beautiful life story Sara! Thank you for sharing... Hilary

  11. Sara - it is amazing to hear this in detail, after so many years have passed. I remember being so incredibly happy that you were alive, and yet I was not as emotionally present with you, and as helpful to you, as I wish I was in hindsight.
    You have always been an inspiration to me (and not just for your physical strength, but for your strength in spirit). When I picture running with grace (a thing that I will never experience), I always picture you in motion.
    Love you.

  12. Dear Sara,
    I am inspired by you! I just had a great run on the St. Charles street car line in New Orleans and always think of you and how you would race the street cars! I'm still trying!

    How great it is that you have a chance to run in such a beautiful part of the country, too.

  13. The words of your story flowed as beautifully as you do in a race. You are simply a gift from God that has so much to offer to so many. I am blessed to know you and inspired by your life and caring heart. Thank you for being you!

  14. I had no idea - we all have hardships to face. Now I'm even more impressed with your racing. Your writing ain't bad either. Thanks for letting me know about your blog. Can't wait to read your next post.

  15. Beautifully written.Thank you for sharing yourstory with me, with all of us.Thank you for sharing your day on the Ridge at Chuckanut with me. All the best to you going forward...let me know where you will be racing and I will do my best to show up and suit uo in support. I too have a story and like yours, the end has not been written. Keep the faith we used to say, we say it now.


Live the way you run. Run happy.

Live the way you run. Run happy.
Thanks to Kevin Riley at Action in Solitude for this Buffalo Park (Flagstaff, Arizona) photo